As soon as Al Horford came into the league, he was labeled an "undersized center" or a "power forward playing out of position." For people in the Hawks know, it was no big deal. We understood Josh Smith could not guard athletic threes or shoot well enough from the outside to play the small forward position. We knew Zaza made for a perfect backup center and a horribly annoying starting one. Horford had to play center. On the Hawks team, Al was a center. Debating whether he should or not have been in an ideal world was to have a conversation about the impossible.
And while the "what ifs" sprang up from time to time, Al has been able to spend the first two plus years of his NBA career adjusting to playing against bigger guys without the pressure of expectations of domination. After all, Horford was out of position. Could you really expect 20 and 10 by his second year? But Al did not bide his time under this protection. He has learned how to fight for position, box out, and use his athleticism to block shots and beat players to their spots.
Through Horford's first two years, he unceremoniously did the little things to make up for his strategic disadvantage. Woody forced Al to tread water and Al was damn good at it. He consistently put up average numbers at an incredibly efficient pace rate. It felt like a win for the Hawks. Efficient survival is all we asked for.
This year is different though. Al is a different player, a more skilled player, a more comfortable player. I look at the schedule, game after game, and there are only two teams that have a clear cut advantage at the center position, Orlando and Los Angeles. Yet those guys are not "regular" centers. If you hold out for an Andrew Bynum or Dwight Howard, you are holding out for a Magic Johnson. They are players that have a unique combination of size and athleticism. They are not redefining the position, but they certainly do not define the norm. And even with that, six years ago people questioned whether Dwight was a center or power forward (don't get me started on the Tim Duncan thing). For years, centers were Shaqs. Maybe not as good as Shaq (ok, definitely not as good as Shaq), but they were 7 footers pushing toward 300 lbs.
Today, outside of the two names mentioned, Al Horford can dominate anyone by that description. The Roy Hibberts of the world do not scare the Hawks. Do people hope to see future Erick Dampier's and Chris Kaman's in their young players? No. They want guys that will fight for boards and get other bigs in foul trouble but still be athletic enough to play the pick and roll. This league is becoming increasingly a team defense league. You don't need one guy to shut down Dwight Howard. It is impossible for one guy to shut down Howard anyway. Just because Al can't do it, does not make him a center.
Right now, Horford has a PER above 20. He leads the team in win shares, shoots 57% from the field, actually makes his free throws, can shut down Greg Oden's and switch onto point guards. Shoot, he can lead fast breaks like a point guard. If Horford's usage was not below most almost every starter (and even his own backup) in the league, who knows what his offensive stats would be. These days Horford is more than survival, he is a borderline all-star. And as some centers increasingly are moving outside the paint (Andrea Bargnani and Mehmet Okur) having an undersized guy who will battle inside but can guard outside might be the best of both worlds. So with apologies to Mr. Howard, what does the future of the center position look like in the NBA? It might just be the power forward with a seven footers mentality.